CHAPTER VIII. THE TELEPHONE IN FOREIGN COUNTRIES
The telephone was nearly a year old before Europe was aware of its existence. It received no public notice of any kind whatever until March 3, 1877, when the London Athenaeum mentioned it in a few careful sentences. It was not welcomed, except by those who wished an evening's entertainment. And to the entire commercial world it was for four or five years a sort of scientific Billiken, that never could be of any service to serious people.
One after another, several American enthusiasts rushed posthaste to Europe, with dreams of eager nations clamoring for telephone systems, and one after another they failed. Frederick A. Gower was the first of these. He was an adventurous chevalier of business who gave up an agent's contract in return for a right to become a roving propagandist. Later he met a prima donna, fell in love with and married her, forsook telephony for ballooning, and lost his life in attempting to fly across the English Channel.
Next went William H. Reynolds, of Providence, who had bought five-eights of the British patent for five thousand dollars, and half the right to Russia, Spain, Portugal, and Italy for two thousand, five hundred dollars. How he was received may be seen from a letter of his which has been preserved. "I have been working in London for four months," he writes; "I have been to the Bank of England and elsewhere; and I have not found one man who will put one shilling into the telephone."
Bell himself hurried to England and Scotland on his wedding tour in 1878, with great expectations of having his invention appreciated in his native land. But from a business point of view, his mission was a total failure. He received dinners a-plenty, but no contracts; and came back to the United States an impoverished and disheartened man. Then the optimistic Gardiner G. Hubbard, Bell's father-in-law, threw himself against the European inertia and organized the International and Oriental Telephone Companies, which came to nothing of any importance. In the same year even Enos M. Barton, the sagacious founder of the Western Electric, went to France and England to establish an export trade in telephones, and failed.
These able men found their plans thwarted by the indifference of the public, and often by open hostility. "The telephone is little better than a toy," said the Saturday Review; "it amazes ignorant people for a moment, but it is inferior to the well-established system of air- tubes." "What will become of the privacy of life?" asked another London editor. "What will become of the sanctity of the domestic hearth?" Writers vied with each other in inventing methods of pooh-poohing Bell and his invention. "It is ridiculously simple," said one. "It is only an electrical speaking-tube," said another. "It is a complicated form of speaking- trumpet," said a third. No British editor could at first conceive of any use for the telephone, except for divers and coal miners. The price, too, created a general outcry. Floods of toy telephones were being sold on the streets at a shilling apiece; and although the Government was charging sixty dollars a year for the use of its printing-telegraphs, people protested loudly against paying half as much for telephones. As late as 1882, Herbert Spencer writes: "The telephone is scarcely used at all in London, and is unknown in the other English cities."
The first man of consequence to befriend the telephone was Lord Kelvin, then an untitled young scientist. He had seen the original telephones at the Centennial in Philadelphia, and was so fascinated with them that the impulsive Bell had thrust them into his hands as a gift. At the next meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Lord Kelvin exhibited these. He did more. He became the champion of the telephone. He staked his reputation upon it. He told the story of the tests made at the Centennial, and assured the sceptical scientists that he had not been deceived. "All this my own ears heard," he said, "spoken to me with unmistakable distinctness by this circular disc of iron."
The scientists and electrical experts were, for the most part, split up into two camps. Some of them said the telephone was impossible, while others said that "nothing could be simpler." Almost all were agreed that what Bell had done was a humorous trifle. But Lord Kelvin persisted. He hammered the truth home that the telephone was "one of the most interesting inventions that has ever been made in the history of science." He gave a demonstration with one end of the wire in a coal mine. He stood side by side with Bell at a public meeting in Glasgow, and declared:
"The things that were called telephones before Bell were as different from Bell's telephone as a series of hand-claps are different from the human voice. They were in fact electrical claps; while Bell conceived the idea - THE WHOLLY ORIGINAL AND NOVEL IDEA - of giving continuity to the shocks, so as to perfectly reproduce the human voice."
One by one the scientists were forced to take the telephone seriously. At a public test there was one noted professor who still stood in the ranks of the doubters. He was asked to send a message. He went to the instrument with a grin of incredulity, and thinking the whole exhibition a joke, shouted into the mouthpiece: "Hi diddle diddle - follow up that." Then he listened for an answer. The look on his face changed to one of the utmost amazement. "It says - `The cat and the fiddle,'" he gasped, and forthwith he became a convert to telephony. By such tests the men of science were won over, and by the middle of 1877 Bell received a "vociferous welcome" when he addressed them at their annual convention at Plymouth.